Practices Called "Sin" by Our Confessions

compiled by Frank B. Baldwin, III

Elder, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church and Legal Counsel, the Presbytery of Philadelphia

[Moderator's Note: For putting "Practices" into context, see Mr. Baldwin's contributions responding to the Stated Clerk's 13 questions and answers and his evaluation of dissent strategy, as well as his recent "Call to Prompt Action," and "A Gentle Response to Mr. Julius Poppinga.]

Debate on Overture B, the misnamed "fidelity, chastity" amendment, is at a high point. Actually Overture B is an "omnibus sin" amendment, which prohibits ordination and installation of persons who (a) have engaged in any practice which "the confessions call sin," (b) acknowledge such conduct to themselves, and (c) refuse to repent thereof. Most ordained elders and deacons to whom I have spoken are unaware that this language casts doubt upon their ordination and their ability to be installed to office in the future, and none to whom I have spoken has been able to give a definitive list of the practices which are called sin in our confessions. It is possible that not all would today agree that all of these practices are sinful, or would repent of them if called on to do so. How can we vote intelligently on this Overture unless we know what practices are covered?

While I cannot think of anything ultimately less rewarding, in an effort to help people understand the enormous scope of the Overture, I have prepared what I believe to be an exhaustive list of the practices which are called sin in our confessions. Happily, in the course of my studies I have also read again those confessions, by which, in my ordination as an elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I have promised to be guided, and I am continually grateful for the work of our ancestors in writing them. There is nothing more useful or comforting, for example, than to know and be guided by the answer to the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism.

Except for the Scots' Confession, no document called a "confession" in the Book of Confessions calls any specific practice "sin." I think, however, that Overture B is meant to apply to practices called "sin" by any of the documents in the Book of Confessions. The documents labeled "catechisms" call many varieties of conduct "sin." It is not feasible to give an accurate count of the practices called "sin." My list below contains at least 225 specifications of sinful practices (many multiple and some duplicative).

The following is a list, believed to be complete, of the practices called "sin" in any document in the Book of Confessions:


I. The Nicene Creed

No practice is called "sin."


II. The Apostles' Creed

No practice is called "sin."


III. The Scots Confession


A. (Chapters II and III) Original sin: the act of Adam and Eve in conspiring against the sovereign majesty of God by eating of the forbidden tree (and by implication doing any act that is clearly prohibited by God).


B. (Chapter XI) Being:


1. stubborn

2. disobedient

3. cruel persecutors

4. filthy persons

5. idolaters

6. all sorts of the unbelieving


(Chapter XIII, omitting duplications)


7. murderers

8. oppressors

9. adulterers

10. drunkards

11. thieves

12. workers of iniquity

13. lustful for pleasant and delightful things

14. envious in adversity

15. proud in prosperity

16. ready to offend the majesty of God


C. (Chapter XIV) Acts to the contrary of good works which are commanded of us:

1. not to call upon God alone when we have need

2. not to hear God's Word with reverence

3. to have or worship idols

4. to maintain and defend idolatry

5. lightly to esteem the reverend name of God

6. to profane, abuse, or condemn the sacraments of Christ Jesus

7. to disobey or resist any whom God has placed in authority, so long as they do not exceed the bounds of their office

8. to murder or consent thereto

9. to bear hatred

10. to let innocent blood be shed if we can prevent it

11. to breach any other commandment of the first or second kind (i.e., to do works to the honor of God and to the profit of our neighbor)

12. to do works which have no other warrant than the invention and opinion of man


IV. The Heidelberg Catechism


A. (Q. 4-5) Failure to obey the Law of God as summarized in Matthew 22:37-40 (which commands us to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbors as ourselves)


B. (Q. 94) Violations of the first commandment:

1. idolatry

2. sorcery

3. enchantments

4. invocation of saints or other creature


C. (Q. 97) Violations of the second commandment:

1. making any image or picture of God


D. (Q. 99) Violations of the third commandment:

1. profanation or abuse of God's name by cursing,

2. perjury or unnecessary oaths


E. (Q. 103) Violations of the fourth commandment:

1. failure to attend church

2. failure to participate in the sacraments

3. failure to call publicly upon the Lord

4. failure to give Christian service to those in need

5. failure to cease from evil works


F. (Q104) Violations of the fifth commandment

1. failure to honor father and mother

2. failure to honor all in authority over me

3. failure to submit with respectful obedience to the foregoing

4. failure to bear patiently the failures of the foregoing


G. (Q105) Violations of the sixth commandment:

1. abuse, hate, injure, or kill a neighbor by thought, word, or gesture

2. actually doing any of the foregoing in person or through another

3. desire for revenge

4. harming self

5. exposing self to danger


H. (Q108-109) Violations of the seventh commandment:


1. failure to live a chaste and disciplined life, whether married or single

2. unchaste actions, words, thoughts, or desires

3. whatever may excite another person to the foregoing


I. (Q110-111) Violations of the eighth commandment:

1. theft and robbery which violate civil law

2. wicked tricks and schemes to obtain a neighbor's goods by force

3. wicked tricks and schemes to obtain a neighbor's goods by deception (including false weights and measures, deceptive advertising or merchandising, counterfeit money, exorbitant interest)

4. greed

5. misuse and waste of God's gifts

6. failure to work for the good of neighbor

7. failure to deal with neighbor as self

8. failure to do our work well, so that we may earn enough to help our neighbors


J. (Q112) Violations of the ninth commandment:

1. bearing false witness against anyone

2. twisting anyone's words

3. being a gossip

4. being a slanderer

5. condemning anyone lightly without a hearing


K. (Q113) Violations of the tenth commandment:


1. allowing into our hearts even the least inclination or thought contrary to any commandment of God


2. failure to hate sin with our whole heart



V. The Second Helvetic Confession

This confession does not deal extensively with sin. Its focus is limited (5.037) to "the innate corruption of man," occasioned by the original sin of our first ancestors. "Actual sins" are said to arise from this original sin, some of which are more serious than others (5.039), but these sins are not enumerated. Those who say that all sins are equal, or that God is the author of sin, are condemned (5.040). Certain other conduct is specifically disapproved, but is not called sin. As examples, disapproval is given to those who use the doctrine of election to excuse misconduct (5.057), and condemnation to those who deny a bodily resurrection (5.075).


VI. The Westminster Confession

This confession focuses on original sin (6.033) and traces other sinful conduct to original sin (6.034-.036), without providing a list of sins.


VII. The Larger and Shorter Catechisms

By far the most fruitful source of practices called sin, these catechisms enumerate at least the following (references are to the larger catechism, which appears to the writer to include all sins identified in the shorter):


A. (Q105): Sins forbidden in the first commandment:


1. atheism

2. idolatry

3. failing to acknowledge God as God

4. the omission or neglect of anything due God

5. ignorance, forgetfulness, misapprehensions, false opinions, unworthy and wicked thoughts of God

6. bold and curious searchings into God's secrets (the nature of which is not stated)

7. profaneness, hatred of God, self-love, self-seeking, and all other inordinate and immoderate setting of our mind, will, or affections on things other than God in whole or in part

8. vain credulity, unbelief, misbelief, distrust, despair, incorrigibleness and insensibleness under judgments, hardness of heart, pride, presumption, carnal security, tempting of God

9. using unlawful means and trusting in lawful means

10. carnal delights and joys

11. corrupt, blind, and indiscreet zeal

12. lukewarmness and deadness in the things of God

13. estranging ourselves and apostatizing from God

14. praying or giving any religious worship to saints, angels, or any other creatures

15. all compacts and consulting with the devil and harkening to his suggestions

16. making men [sic] the lords of our faith and conscience

17. slighting and despising God and God's commands

18. resisting and grieving of God's Spirit, discontent and impatience at God's dispensations, charging God foolishly for evils inflicted on us

19. ascribing any good we are, have, or can do to fortune, idols, ourselves, or any other creatures


B. (Q109) Sins forbidden in the second commandment:


1. devising, counseling, commanding, using, and otherwise approving any religious worship not instituted by God

2. making any representation (or image) of God, either mentally or physically

3. worshiping an image of God, or worshiping God through an image

4. making any representation of feigned deities, worshiping or serving them

5. all superstitious devices which corrupt the worship of God, from any source

6. simony and sacrilege

7. neglect or contempt of or hindering or opposing the worship ordinances which God has appointed


C. (Q113) Sins forbidden by the third commandment:


1. not using God's name as required

2. abusing God's name in an ignorant, vain, irreverent, profane, superstitious or wicked way

3. blasphemy

4. perjury

5. cursing, oaths, vows, and lots

6. violating our lawful oaths and vows

7. fulfilling unlawful vows

8. murmuring and quarreling at, curious prying into, and misapplication of God's decrees and providence

9. misinterpreting, misapplying, or perverting the Word, or any part of it, to profane jests, curious and unprof~table questions, vain janglings, or the maintaining of false doctrines

10. using the Word for purposes of charms or sinful lusts and practices

11. maligning, scorning, reviling, or opposing God's truth, grace, and ways

12. professing religion in hypocrisy or for sinister ends

13. being ashamed of, or a shame to, the Word by walking in uncomfortable, unwise, unfruitful, and offensive ways, or backsliding


D. (Q119) Sins forbidden by the fourth commandment:


1. omitting the duties of the Sabbath, carelessly performing them, and being weary of them

2. idleness or doing what is in itself sinful on the Sabbath

3. needless works, words, and thoughts about our worldly employments and recreations


E. (Q128) Sins of "inferiors" forbidden by the fifth commandment:


1. neglect of duties required toward superiors

2. envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against superiors' persons and places in their lawful counsels, commands and corrections

3. cursing, mocking and refractory and scandalous carriage which is a shame or dishonor to superiors and their government


F. (Q130) Sins of "superiors" forbidden in the fifth commandment


1. neglect of duties required of them

2. inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit or pleasure

3. commanding things unlawful or not in the power of inferiors to perform

4. counseling, encouraging, or favoring inferiors in that which is evil

5. dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing inferiors in that which is good

6. correcting inferiors unduly

7. carelessly exposing or leaving inferiors to wrong, temptation, and danger

8. unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior


G. (Q132) Sins of "equals" forbidden in the fifth commandment:

1. neglect of the duties required of them

2. undervaluing the worth of another

3. envying the gifts of another

4. grieving at the advancement or prosperity of another

5. usurping preeminence


H. (Q136) Sins forbidden in the sixth commandment:


1. suicide

2. taking away another's life except in case of public justice, lawful war, or necessary defense

3. neglecting or withdrawing the lawful or necessary means of preserving life

4. anger, hatred, envy, or desire of revenge

5. excessive passions

6. distracting cares

7. immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreation

8. provoking words

9. oppression, quarreling, striking, wounding

10. whatever else tends to the destruction of the life of any


I. (Q137) Sins forbidden in the seventh commandment:

1. neglect of the required duties, which are:

a. chastity in body, mind, affections, words, and behavior

b. preservation of chastity in ourselves and others

c. watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses

d. temperance

e. keeping chaste company

f. modesty in apparel

g. marriage by those who do not have the gifts of continency, conjugal love, and cohabitation

h. diligent labor in our callings

i. shunning of all occasions of uncleanness and resisting temptations thereto

2. adultery

3. fornication

4. rape

5. incest

6. unnatural lusts

7. unclean imaginations, thoughts, purposes, and affections

8. engaging in or listing to corrupt or filthy communications

9. wanton looks

10. imprudent or light behavior

11. immodest apparel

12. prohibiting lawful marriages

13. dispensing with unlawful marriages

14. allowing, tolerating, keeping of stews (brothels) and resorting to them

15. entangling vows of single lif

16. undue delay of marriage

17. having more than one spouse at a single time

18. unjust divorce or desertion

19. idleness

20. gluttony

21. drunkenness

22. unchaste company

23. lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays

24. provocations to, or acts of, uncleanness in ourselves or others


J. (Q142) Sins forbidden by the eighth commandment:


1. Neglect of the required duties, which are:

a. truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce

b. rendering to everyone his due

c. restitution of goods unlawfully detained

d. giving and lending freely according to our abilities and the necessities of others

f. moderation of our judgments, wills, and affections concerning

e. worldly goods

f. provident care and study to get and use things necessary for our nature and suitable to our condition

g. a lawful calling and a diligence in it

h. frugality

i. avoiding unnecessary lawsuits and suretyship

j. an endeavor by all just and lawful means to promote the welfare of others as well as our own


2. theft, robbery, man-stealing, receiving stolen goods

3. fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing landmarks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts or in matters of trust

4. oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations

5. engrossing commodities to increase the price

6. unlawful callings

7. unlawfully taking what belongs to our neighbor or enriching ourselves

8. covetousness and inordinate desire for worldly goods

9. inordinate attention to getting, keeping, and using worldly goods

lO. envying the prosperity of others

11. idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming and all other wastes of our outward estate


K. (Q145) Sins forbidden by the ninth commandment:


1. prejudicing of the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, especially in court

2. giving false evidence

3. suborning false witnesses

4. knowingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause

5. outfacing and overbearing the truth

6. passing unjust sentence

7. calling evil good, and good evil

8. rewarding the wicked as if righteous, or the righteous as if wicked

9. forgery

10. concealing the truth

11. undue silence in a just cause

12. holding our peace when we should reprove or complain

13. speaking the truth unseasonably or for a wrongful purpose, perverting the truth to a wrong meaning or an equivocal expression to the prejudice of truth or justice

14. speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, talebearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling

15. rash, harsh, and partial censuring

16. misconstruing intentions, words, and actions

17. vainglorious boasting

18. thinking too highly or too meanly of ourselves and others

19. denying the gifts and graces of God

20. aggravating smaller faults

21. covering up sins

22. unnecessary discovering of infirmities

23. raising false rumors

24. receiving and countenancing evil reports .

25. stopping our ears against just defense

26. evil suspicion

27. envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any

28. endeavoring or desiring to impair the credit of another or rejoicing in another's disgrace and infamy

29. scornful contempt

30. fond (ie., foolish) admiration

31. breach of lawful promises

32. neglecting such things as are of good report

33. failing to avoid in ourselves, and hinder in others, those things that damage reputation


L. (Q148) Sins forbidden in the tenth commandment:


1. discontentment with our own estate

2. envying and grieving at our neighbor's good

3. inordinate motions and affections to anything that is our neighbor's



VIII. The Theological Declaration of Barmen

No practices are called "sin."


IX. The Confession of 1967

No specific practices are called "sin." As a general definition of sin, the Confession states: "In sin, men claim mastery of their own lives, turn against God and their fellow men, and become exploiters and despoilers of the world. They lose their humanity in futile striving and are left in rebellion, despair, and isolation." (9.12)


X. A Brief Statement of Faith

No specific practices are called "sin." However the confession states: ". . . we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator. Ignoring God's commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God's condemnation." (10.3)


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